Do you ever wish that annoying colleague or friend who always wants to "improve" your ideas would just go away? You know the one I mean, he (or she) isn't mean spirited or particularly unkind, just always a bit critical.
Well, be careful what you wish for. More and more studies show that creativity flourishes not in an environment devoid of criticism but one filled with supportive critique. "Supportive," of course, is key. The idea is to improve - to point out the strengths, certainly, but also and more importantly the weaknesses of an idea in order to make it better. This isn't criticism for criticism's sake; it's criticism for the sake of a shared goal: producing the best product or homework assignment or project or idea or whatever.
We've talked before about how the ideal of brainstorming - providing a "safe" space where everyone can share ideas absent any critical feedback - yields far fewer creative and useful ideas than conventional wisdom suggests. But it's still tempting to believe that criticism isn't helpful; indeed, that it is the antithesis of creativity. And it can be if either the one offering critique or the one receiving it doesn't keep the goal of improving the idea central.
However, when critique is entered into in the spirit of teamwork - that is, absent the usual ego-concerns of "who's getting credit" - then free-flowing, even hard-hitting critique can be not only helpful but downright liberating. Jonah Lehrer gets at some of this in his book Imagine:
The only way to maximize group creativity - to make the whole more than the sum of its parts - is to encourage a candid discussion of mistakes. In part, this is because the acceptance of error reduces its cost. When you believe that your flaws will be quickly corrected by the group, you're less worried about perfecting your contribution, which leads to a more candid conversation. We can only get it right when we talk about what we got wrong.
But lest this rationale in favor of keeping your critics close to you doesn't move you, let me offer an argument from the opposite direction by examining what happens when critics are removed: The Hobbit. Below is the trailer.
If you haven't seen the film, the trailer gives you a sense of Peter Jackson's monumental attempt to tie this film to the Lord of the Rings Trilogy that preceded it historically but follow after it narratively (that is, The Hobbit is something of a prequel, or introduction, to LOTR).
If you have seen the film, then you already know that that effort was a monumental failure. Actually, that's not quite right. The effort to tied The Hobbit to LOTR was, if anything, too successful, all but killing any the narrative integrity of the book.
I was worried about the film when I heard it was being split into three films. That's three films for a book that isn't nearly as long as any of the individual books that comprised the LOTR. And, indeed, the film is so long and pace so slow that afterward my fifteen-year old son wryly observed that he probably could have read the first third of the book more quickly.
So what happened? How did Jackson, whose adaptation of the Ring books was so brilliant, fall so far short?
I don't know this for certain, but I suspect that it was his very success. Not in the sense that his ego expanded exponentially, but rather that he no longer had to listen to critics. When he made the Ring films he was an ambitious and relatively accomplished but as yet not famous director who had to listen to people. Which is what just you don't have to do anymore once you become famous.
Jackson is certainly not the first filmmaker - or artist - to suffer this fate. Think of George Lucas' second set of Star Wars films. Lucas controlled absolutely every element of those films, giving over critical authority to no one except when it came to the musical score. And it showed. The films fell so far short of their originals that it was painful.
Or think of J. K. Rowling's fifth installment of the Harry Potter series - bloated with a meandering plot and a plethora of unimportant characters and subplots. (Which doesn't mean it wasn't still fun to read, of course, just too long; notice the relative brevity of the books 6 and 7). Or consider George R. R. Martin's last two books in the Song of Ice and Fire series that began with the brilliant A Game of Thrones , two books that were originally one, but that Martin split into two because the plot lines had grown so unbearably complex. It took Martin ten years to write those two books - as opposed to the twelve to eighteen months for each of the first three - and when all was said and done they turned out to be one book after all, just stretched across nearly two thousand pages.
Lacking a critic, we tend to fall into the glorious delirium that our own creativity is sufficient. Surrounded by fierce if also generous critics however, who are committed to seeing the project reach its greatest heights, who knows what we might accomplish. So...to adapt an old adage, if you want to be both creative and successful, "keep your friends close, and your critics even closer."
Note: I know that Jonah Lehrer came under intense and deserved criticism for fabricating several of the quotes in his book, a book that can no longer be published. Despite these egregious mistakes, I still think there's a lot to learn from it.